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‘Encanto’ in 30 Days, ‘Eternals’ in 60+ — Inside the Disney+ Release Strategy

Ben Bowman

Today, Disney announced its latest MCU film, “Eternals,” will arrive on Disney+ on January 12. That’s 68 days after it opened in theaters. Its latest animated film, “Encanto,” will hit the streamer on December 24, just 30 days after its theatrical debut. Why is Disney sliding these films around?

While next year’s Warner Bros. films will head to HBO Max and Universal movies will go to Peacock 45 days after they appear in theaters, Disney is choosing a different course. This is apparently motivated by the need to “program” Disney+. While Netflix rocked the entertainment industry with its same-day binge model for every show, Disney+ chose to roll out its first major original — “The Mandalorian” — with an old-school weekly release. The strategy worked, giving the show time to breathe, get traction on social media, and incorporate new fans over time. In reaction, Netflix chose to switch its model for some shows. When it comes to TV, some titles will be available to binge on various platforms, while highly anticipated titles may get a slower release.

As for films, the formula is a bit trickier. As the pandemic unfurled, every entertainment company had to balance its model for movie releases between streaming, theatrical, or some hybrid option:

HBO Max drove a ton of viewership to its platform with its bold, controversial same-day release strategy. Since many of those titles had high name recognition and youth appeal, those movies also did well theatrically.

Paramount scored by offering its family films (“PAW Patrol” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog”) in theaters and on Paramount+ on the same day. Other adult-skewing films would get a theatrical-only release to cut down on piracy and extend the life cycle of the property. “Snake Eyes” was a flop, but “A Quiet Place Part II” proved popular in theaters ($297 million) and, later, on the streaming service.

In contrast, Disney+ was all over the place in 2021. It had success with its slow roll-out of its Marvel series: “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki,” and “Hawkeye.” But the movie strategy was a mess. Pixar movies got dumped on the platform without a theatrical run, likely angering the teams behind “Luca” and “Soul.” The Premier Access streaming release of “Black Widow” led to a lawsuit from Scarlett Johansson, and the film still proved successful at the box office. Disney dumped the Premier Access tier starting with “Shang-Chi,” favoring a theatrical-only run for its Marvel films.

Streaming services do well to have at least one marquee property per month, which keeps users from churning. Disney’s MCU shows have helped retain users through 2021. “The Book of Boba Fett” should appeal to much of the same audience when it debuts December 29. So if we look back through the Disney+ calendar, a pattern begins to emerge, with the Star Wars and Marvel properties aimed at retaining the sci-fi/superhero fan:

Dates Title Availability
Oct-Dec ‘20 The Mandalorian Disney+
Jan-March ‘21 WandaVision Disney+
March-April ‘21 Falcon and the Winter Soldier Disney+
June-July ‘21 Loki Disney+
July ‘21 Black Widow Theatrical & Premier Access
Sept ‘21 Shang-Chi Theatrical only
Oct ‘21 Black Widow Disney+
Nov ‘21 Eternals Theatrical only
Nov ‘21 Shang-Chi Disney+
Nov ‘21 Hawkeye Disney+
Dec ‘21-Feb ‘22 The Book of Boba Fett Disney+
Jan ‘22 Eternals Disney+

Disney has to be careful with these properties. The MCU is already starting to show signs of oversaturation. Just like Westerns or zombie movies or raunchy comedies, the superhero genre will fizzle at some point. A slow and deliberate release strategy like this can keep fans engaged and subscribed.

As for “Encanto” and its earlier-than-normal Disney+ release, this tracks with the company’s history of dropping some family entertainment around Christmas. “Soul” hit the platform on Dec. 25 last year. The film also isn’t setting the box office on fire. At $120 million so far, it still hasn’t recouped its budget.

While some players are content to lock into a set release schedule, Disney is aiming to squeeze its subscribers with a flexible timetable. It appears Premier Access is dead for now, so the plan is to make sure each month has something to ring the bell of a dedicated fandom. With subscriber growth cooling immensely, the platform appears focused more on retention than growth. A significantly increased content spend will likely help add new users, but if we're only getting new Marvel or Star Wars series, Disney+ may have a hard time expanding its Magic Kingdom.

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